“Nothing seems to bother my kids but tonight’s show, which I totally wash my hands of, is really scary.”
For anyone who grew up watching The Simpsons, the Treehouse Of Horror Halloween specials are an annual horror staple, from spooky couch gag to horror-themed credits. You can learn an awful lot of things just from watching the show, but for younger audiences, these episodes gave us our introduction to certain iconic horror stories.
Having ditched the early framing device of the family telling scary stories to one another, with Springfielders cast in key roles, the format is now closer to a mini-anthology of terror with three stories that take place outside of canon. This has usually given the writers licence to be more gruesome and outlandish than in the regular series, frequently with lots more blood and guts than even the most brutal Itchy & Scratchy short.
For the purpose of getting a decent spread of the series, we’re ranking individual stories rather than whole episodes, partly because the quality of the stories varies even across specials produced in the golden age of the series (by popular reckoning, that’s seasons three to eight) but also because there have been some good individual segments later on too.
We’ve been advised to tell you that the following list is very scary with stuff that might give your kids nightmares. If you are one of those cry-babies who might be offended, I dare you not to read this list. Chickens! Here’s the list…
13. Desperately Xeeking Xena (Treehouse Of Horror X)
“Whenever you notice something like that, a wizard did it.”
At a school Halloween party, an accident with an X-ray machine gives Bart the ability to stretch his body a la Mr. Fantastic, while Lisa gains super-strength. They quickly fall upon the idea of becoming superheroes- Stretch Dude and Clobber Girl- and the rest of the story segues into an episode of their own TV show, complete with catchy theme song and adventures that involve kicking Saddam Hussein in the arse and using the Statue of Liberty to crash a Nazi zeppelin.
When Lucy Lawless appears at a comic convention in Springfield, she’s kidnapped by the Collector (Comic Book Guy) who wants her as his bride, and the two heroes come to her rescue. It’s by far the geekiest segment on the list, with gags about nit-picky nerd questions and a passing references to Doctor Who, Lost In Space and Star Trek- Voyager, sealed in mylar bags on the Collector’s wall.
Just as Halloween costumes have become less about being scary than hitting something in pop culture, this is really the first Treehouse Of Horror segment that doesn’t really have anything to do with horror. But it’s a funny one, so it just makes the list- we particularly like how Lucy Lawless, who protests all the way through that she’s not Xena, ultimately saves the day with her Lucy Lawless powers anyway.
12. Night Of The Dolphin (Treehouse Of Horror XI)
“Bottlenose bruises, blowhole burns, flipper prints- this looks like the work of rowdy teens. Lou, cancel the prom!”
In short, it’s The Birds, but with dolphins. It’s surprising that these specials took so long to do a full-on Hitchcock parody, but it’s worth the wait. Lenny and the Sea Captain are both murdered by the sea as the first act of a full-blown dolphin insurrection in Springfield. Homer tries to convince the town that they can outsmart the dolphins, but… they can’t.
The visual of the dolphins standing on their tails and marching into town is surreal enough, but the segment also follows through on the premise, having them kill people by bouncing beach balls at them or impaling them with their noses. By the end, they surround the townspeople, poised to attack, giving way to a mass fist-fight.
It resolves itself off screen and ends with the Springfielders evicted from land to float around the sea, while dolphins reclaim their land. It’s more odd than scary, certainly, but either way, it’s a funny one. Where else will you hear Lisa Simpson come so close to calling a dolphin a son of a bitch?
11. The Thing And I (Treehouse Of Horror VII)
“But what to do with poor Hugo? Too crazy for Boys’ Town, too much of a boy for Crazy Town, the boy was an outcast.”
With Marge acting cagey and Homer making regular trips upstairs with a bucket of fish heads, Bart and Lisa get suspicious. They soon discover that their parents are hiding a monstrous boy in the attic- Bart’s evil Siamese twin, Hugo, from whom he was separated at birth.
This one is a rare showcase for Dr. Hibbert, who is here cast in the role of an expert on evil Siamese twins, advising the family to keep Hugo chained up in secret and administering such treatments as knocking the poor kid out under the pretext of showing him a mirror.
Hugo himself is one of those enjoyably gruesome mayfly characters that pop up in the Halloween episodes, scuttling around the vents of the house and making pigeon-rats in preparation to sew himself back to his estranged brother. The punchline that he was actually the twin on the right, making Bart the evil twin after all makes it that much darker, but it’s a stand-out for the laughs as well as much as the premise.
10. Fly Vs. Fly (Treehouse Of Horror VIII)
“Bart, are you in there? Have you forgotten our little kablammo talk?”
At Professor Frink’s yard sale, Homer buys a pair of transporter booths for 35 cents, finding an endless array of applications to aid in his own laziness, from going upstairs to doing a number 1. Inspired by a partly successful cat-dog experiment, Bart decides to take a fly into the booth to gain superpowers. Instead, his head winds up shrunken onto the insect’s body, while Bart’s body now has a ravenous, slathering head.
It’s a story of two halves, with Homer’s inventive high tech sloth making for the funnier introduction and then Bart’s efforts to switch bodies with the fly taking up the rest of the story. It’s not an overt spoof of The Fly, but it does go straight to the body horror of the Cronenberg film, knocking Bart’s notion of fly-based superpowers on its arse in short order.
It resolves neatly with the two organisms reverting back to their own forms, but there’s a nice kiss-off as Homer takes up an axe and declares that man was not meant to mess with this technology… and chases after Bart instead of destroying the infernal machine.
9. Citizen Kang (Treehouse Of Horror VII)
“Don’t blame me- I voted for Kodos!”
Kang and Kodos have appeared in Treehouse Of Horror episodes since “Hungry Are The Damned” in the very first special, ranging from cameos to more involved roles in stories like “Citizen Kang,” in which they snatch the bodies of the candidates in the then-upcoming 1996 presidential election and in the process, became the only reason why anyone who watched this episode remembers who Bob Dole is.
Homer is the only one who knows about their plot, but finds himself discredited by the smell of the rum that the aliens liberally sprayed on him following his abduction. As the only one who can put a stop to their coup, he winds up setting Clinton and Dole free. In the vacuum of space.
There’s an inevitable punchline about how even when the American electorate are faced with a choice between two identical pod-people, the system doesn’t make any allowance for an alternative choice. By the end, Marge is grumbling about why the enslaved humans have to build weapons to point at planets whose names she doesn’t even recognize. In its own weird way, it rings true.
8. Dial Z For Zombie (Treehouse Of Horror III)
“I thought dabbling in the black arts would be good for a chuckle- how wrong I was.”
Spoiler alert- all three stories from the third Halloween special will be on this list. It’s really the best of the bunch and the last to use the storytelling framing device- Lisa, Grampa and Bart all take turns to tell their scariest tales at a Halloween party at the Simpsons’ house, and Bart’s is a hellraising zombie story.
Bart reads a book of magical spells from the school library’s occult section and discovers an enchantment (which sounds an awful lot like the names of game show hosts and bargain retail outlets) that will raise Lisa’s cat Snowball I from her grave in the pet cemetery. Instead, it raises all of the dead in the neighboring people cemetery.
The zombie infestation of Springfield brings up some classic moments, including zombie radio and zombie Krusty. The writers still say that the bit where Homer kills zombie Flanders (“He was a zombie?”) is one of the best jokes they’ve ever done. For us, we love the scene where Homer nobly tries to sacrifice himself to the ravening hordes, except that they seem disappointed with his lack of brains. Plus, any episode that includes the line “Is this the end of zombie Shakespeare?” is more than worthy of mention.
7. The Devil And Homer Simpson (Treehouse Of Horror IV)
“‘Dear Homer, I.O.U one emergency donut, signed Homer.’ Bastard! He’s always one step ahead…”
On a few occasions, Ned Flanders’ close-to-Godliness (Ned-liness?) has been turned into something more sinister in the Halloween episodes. Season 11’s “I Know What You Diddly-Iddly-Did” cast him as a werewolf, Season 16’s “The Ned Zone” saw him following in the footsteps of Christopher Walken in a version of Stephen King’s The Dead Zone, and most recently, season 23’s “Dial D For Diddily” made him into a Dexter-style vigilante.
But the first and most effective of these is in his turn as the Devil in season five- it’s always the person you least suspect. In a parody of 1941’s The Devil And Daniel Webster, Homer enters into a Faustian pact with the Flanders Devil for a single doughnut (what else?) and winds up contesting the Satanic rights to his damnation at trial.
Perhaps this one is best remembered for its vision of Hell, with its hot dog meat production line and Ironic Punishments department- the machine that feeds Homer every doughnut in the world was glimpsed in this year’s Treehouse Of Horror as a sight gag during another visit to the underworld.
Other highlights in the fourth special include “Terror At 5½ Feet,” which puts the classic gremlin-on-the-side-of-the-plane plot from The Twilight Zone on the Springfield Elementary school bus, and a trip to a vampiric Mr. Burns’ Pennsylvanian mansion in Bart Simpson’s Dracula. (“Dad, this is blood!” “Correction- FREE blood!”)
6. Starship Poopers (Treehouse Of Horror IX)
“Marge, look! Maggie lost her baby legs!”
Season 10 is seen by some as the tipping point between classic Simpsons and the less popular episodes of recent years, but the Treehouse of Horror for this season is up there with the funniest and most inventive of them. “Hell Toupee” sees Homer possessed by a hair transplant that used to sit on Snake’s noggin and “The Terror Of Tiny Toon” is a Stay Tuned-style odyssey through cartoon land for Bart and Lisa.
But the third story, a Kang and Kodos tale, is the best. As a kind of successor to the dark family secrets in “The Thing And I,” it emerges that Maggie’s father isn’t Homer, but Kang, who abducted and impregnated Marge. A paternity dispute follows, which inevitably leads to an appearance on The Jerry Springer Show, follows- “Wife knocked boots with Space Stud!”
The satire of this episode is broader than the scathing political assault on the two-party system in “Citizen Kang,” but it leads to much bigger laughs, particularly when taking on the tropes of Springer’s show. (‘We have Kang in a soundproof booth where he can’t hear us.’ ‘I hear all!’) and playing with Maggie’s alien physionogomy. And frankly, Maggie having an alien dad is more credible than some of the canon contortions of continuity in the series proper.
5. Clown Without Pity (Treehouse Of Horror III)
“We sell forbidden objects from places men fear to tread. We also sell frozen yogurt, which I call frogurt!”
This is Lisa’s story from Treehouse Of Horror III, and perhaps the most memorable of the Twilight Zone pastiche stories that brought so much inspiration in the early specials. This one is inspired by the episode “Living Doll.”
Homer buys Bart a Krusty doll as a last minute birthday gift from an occult shop- the mysterious vendor warns him it carries a terrible curse, (which is bad) but it comes with free frogurt (which is good) that is also cursed (which is bad) with a choice of topping that contains potassium benzoate. (That’s bad.)
Of course, Krusty turns out to have a mind of his own and he’s hellbent on killing Homer. From beginning to end, this is a highly quotable skit with a deliciously simple climax- turns out the doll can simply be switched from Evil to Good. The darker, unanswered aspect is that we never quite find out why the toaster has been laughing at Homer.
4. King Homer (Treehouse Of Horror III)
“I don’t think women and seamen mix, sir.”
“We know what you think.”
That’s three for three from Treehouse Of Horror III, and there’s a reason why this one is a fixture of the Halloween repeats. Grampa’s “King Homer” is a straight-up mini monster movie in black and white, based on the 1933 version of King King.
Mr. Burns leads an expedition to look for a giant ape on a distant island, enlisting one Marge Bouvier as an unwitting human sacrifice to the beast. The ape, who looks an awful lot like Homer, winds up on the same voyage to Broadway as that other giant monkey, albeit with a much happier ending and a recommendation that he eat more vegetables and fewer people.
The Simpsons famously made its characters yellow-skinned to catch the attention of channel hoppers, but the extended black and white sequence is somehow even more eye-catching, with gags galore.
Although the above quote is immortalized by Sgt. Ferrell in 28 Days Later, (who proclaims it his Best. Joke. Ever) it’s jam-packed with quotable lines about Candy Apple Island, bathing beauties and the chubbiest kickline in town.
3. The Shinning (Treehouse Of Horror V)
“No TV and no beer make Homer something something.”
Mr. Burns invites the Simpsons to take care of an Overlook-esque lodge that was the site of Satanic rituals, witch burnings and five John Denver Christmas specials. He cuts the family off from TV and beer for the winter, a decision that Smithers speculates was the reason why the last few caretakers went mad and murdered their families.
In this special, producer David Mirkin pushed to put as much blood and guts in as was feasibly possible, in spiteful response to Congressional attempts to censor the show (referenced at the top of the episode in Marge’s traditional address to the fourth wall.) They certainly got off to a good start with their choice of source material for their opening parody.
Bart stands in for young Danny Torrance with Willie telling him that he has “the shinning”, so as to avoid any comparisons of a plagiaristic nature. Over the course of the following two stories, Willie goes from a kind of Scotsman Crothers figure to being killed off more ignominiously in both “Time And Punishment” and “Nightmare Cafeteria.”
But despite any protests to the contrary, the iconography of a certain classic Stanley Kubrick horror film is all fair game here. It’s clear from the winding road to the lodge to the final image of the family frozen in the snow. There’s even a shout-out to the iconic shot of blood spilling from the elevators, (“That’s odd, usually the blood gets off at the second floor,” Burns observes.)
Homer’s raving Nicholson-esque turn is perhaps the most memorable (“Urge to kill… rising”) but Marge is a great stand-in for Shelley Winters’ Wendy too, smashing the glass for a baseball bat in case of spousal insanity, and Moe leads a platoon of beasts including a mummy and Freddy Krueger in trying to convince Homer to kill the family. This is The Simpsons at the top of its spoofing game.
2. The Raven (The Simpsons’ Halloween Special)
“Quoth the raven’ ‘Eat my shorts.”
The first Halloween special even pre-dates the Treehouse of Horror label, but it hits upon the reason why all subsequent Halloween specials would take that name. Bart, Lisa and Maggie are in the treehouse as Homer eavesdrops on the elder siblings trying to out-scare each other with spooky stories.
The first two both unfold along similar lines, with “Bad Dream House” telling the story of how a haunted house built on an ancient Indian burial ground would rather destroy itself than live with the Simpsons, and “Hungry Are The Damned” riffing on an old Twilight Zone episode, “To Serve Man,” with Lisa offending aliens Kang and Kodos by suggesting that they’re fattening the family up to eat them.
But the third and final segment is a masterstroke, and the reason why Edgar Allan Poe gets a co-writing credit on the episode- a re-staging of Poe’s horror poem “The Raven,” casting Homer as the man driven to madness by Bart’s talking raven.
Sticking closely to the text, James Earl Jones amplifies its immutable creep factor with his vocal performance, and it’s mostly played with a straight bat. However, there are a couple of great sight gags and interruptions by Bart (when Lisa reaches the “darkness there and nothing more” line, he incredulously exclaims: “You know what would have been better than nothing? ANYTHING.”)
This episode was Alf Clausen’s first gig as composer for the series and in addition to coining some Halloween-y music cues that are still being used to this day, the dramatic crescendo to this segment, with Homer cowering away from the Bart-headed bird, is the cap on one of the most artful segments that the show has ever produced, introducing a whole new audience to a classic piece of horror prose in a darkly funny way.
1. A Nightmare On Evergreen Terrace (Treehouse Of Horror VI)
“‘Do Not Touch- Willie’ Hm, good advice.”
Sandwiched between “Attack Of The 50 Foot Eyesores,” (in which writer John Swartzwelder brilliantly lampooned advertising) and the mostly computer generated “Homer3,” this one is our favorite because it strikes such a precise balance between horror and comedy.
Of all of the series’ horror spoofs, this story is actually more straight-up disturbing than most instalments of the lumbering horror franchise that it was mocking. Casting Groundskeeper Willie as Freddy Krueger, the children of Springfield Elementary are terrorised by the janitor-turned-nightmarish-avenger in their dreams, as revenge for the disastrous PTA meeting where he died.
Following the previous year’s “Nightmare Cafeteria,” which had Skinner and the faculty eating their students, it’s almost like the writers wanted to top their already gruesome treatment of killing off children. This one is packed with nightmare fuel imagery, ranging from Martin’s corpse in a rigor mortis expression of terror, to Willie’s flaming skeleton staggering into a room and hollering a vow of violent revenge.
But it wouldn’t be The Simpsons if there weren’t also some really funny gags. There’s the uniquely daft idea of the school buying calendars with a superfluous 13th month called Smarch, followed immediately by the signage joke quoted above.
The producers still cite this as one of the scariest Halloween segments they’ve ever done and that certainly holds true for this humble writer. But in a visually inventive segment, they constantly married the absurd with the genuinely disturbing, typified by Willie’s penultimate form being a kind of spider made out of bagpipes. Yeesh.
Let us know if you think we’ve missed any all-time classic or modern gems in the comments, and have a happy Halloween.
Culture Editor Tony Sokol cut his teeth on the wire services and also wrote and produced New York City’s Vampyr Theatre and the rock opera AssassiNation: We Killed JFK. Read more of his work here or find him on Twitter @tsokol.